When he was ordered deported from the United States, Diego Alejandro Rojas didn't think of himself. His mind didn't turn to the chaos that awaited him in Venezuela. He didn't linger on the death threats from the local paramilitary thugs who forced him to flee in the first place. Then, as now, what scared him more than anything else — even more than losing his life — was the prospect of never meeting his son.
Before fleeing to Miami, Rojas had spent his whole life in Ciudad Bolívar, one of the most dangerous cities in the South American nation and, by extension, one of the world's major murder capitals. There, Rojas worked with his father selling raw materials to local manufacturers and government-owned industries. Business was bad, and daily life was increasingly unstable. But Venezuela was his home, and he never saw himself leaving — until the colectivos showed up.
After autocrat Nicolás Maduro rose to power in 2013, Rojas joined Voluntad Popular, a centrist political party that's part of the opposition movement in Venezuela. He marched in the streets and participated in other protests. But before long, his outspokenness against Maduro attracted the attention of the local colectivos — motorcycle-riding thugs who double as armed pro-government enforcers, known for their attacks on journalists and government critics. After receiving various violent threats, Rojas and his girlfriend of nine years fled to Miami, where they could find safety and she could reunite with her mother.
The couple entered the United States on tourist visas in July 2018 with just enough money to get by. Rojas, who is 24 years old, spent what he had on a car and began driving around the clock for Uber and Lyft. Within a month of their arrival, his girlfriend became pregnant — "a gift from God," he says. Rojas took on longer hours and saved what he could for the baby, as well as the $2,000 in legal fees to apply for asylum. He had almost put away enough to submit the application when immigration agents caught up with him.
After dropping off a Lyft passenger at Port Everglades in March, Rojas was stopped by border officials who requested his driver's license and documentation. By then, he had well overstayed his visa. He was detained at the port until Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers picked him up and eventually transported him to the Broward Transitional Center (BTC), where he would remain for almost three months while battling his asylum claim. Finally, Rojas was deported in May, exactly one week before his first and only child was born in a Miami hospital.
"I told the judge that I couldn't go back — that I could be killed, that I had a baby on the way in the U.S. It didn't matter," Rojas says. "In the time I spent [at BTC], I saw only two Venezuelans awarded asylum. But they deported six others."
Crushed by political instability and economic misery, more than four million Venezuelans have left their country since 2015; hundreds of thousands have found their way to the United States. President Donald Trump claims to be in their corner, but not convincingly. His administration's efforts to free Venezuela from the white-knuckled grip of the Maduro government have been offset by the continued deportations of vulnerable Venezuelans living in the States, as well as the president's refusal to offer them temporary legal status. Put simply, there's no doubt Trump is an enemy of Maduro. What's less obvious, however, is whether he's a true friend to the Venezuelans who have managed to escape Maduro's murderous regime.
It's in the context of these bubbling political trust issues that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) did his best to reassure uneasy Venezuelans of their safety in the United States. In two videos released in July, one in English and the other in Spanish, Rubio claimed that not only was it unlikely that a Venezuelan such as Rojas would be booted from the country — but also it wasn't actually possible. According to Rubio, ICE remains unable to deport Venezuelans for two reasons: First, there are no direct flights from the States to Venezuela, and, second, the United States does not have an active diplomatic relationship with the Maduro regime because it recognizes opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela's interim president. As Rubio tells it, the worst that could happen to a Venezuelan without papers stateside is they might be detained for "three weeks" by an immigration agent who "didn't get the memo" about the breakdown in relations between the two countries.
But in reality, immigration officials appear to be using indirect flights to continue deportations to Venezuela without missing a beat. The Trump administration suspended all direct flights to Venezuela May 15, the same day Rojas was deported on a Copa Airlines flight from Miami to Caracas after a brief layover in Panama. Another Venezuelan detained in Broward, Alfonso Cazalis, was deported one week after Rojas was removed. The details of his trip were the same: an indirect Copa Airlines flight from Miami to Caracas with a stopover in Panama.
Rojas and Cazalis (whose names have been changed in this article to protect their identities) say they know of other Venezuelans in BTC who were set to be deported.
The deportations are somewhat of an open secret in Miami's Venezuelan community, which remains skeptical of expressions of support from Trump, Rubio, and their ilk. During a July episode of the Miami-based YouTube show Factores de Poder, Venezuelan journalist Patricia Poleo described Rubio's comments on deportations of Venezuelans as "imprecise" and said she knew of various cases of Venezuelans who had been removed from the United States.
"The Trump administration has proven inconsistent in its attitudes towards Maduro and the people who were forced to flee the dictatorship in Venezuela," says Jose Colina, president of the Miami organization Veppex (an acronym in Spanish for Politically Persecuted Venezuelans in Exile) and a frequent guest on Factores de Poder. "If they can deport a Venezuelan, they will. And if they can't, they leave them in jails for months."
Cazalis knows what it feels like to rot in behind bars. Like Rojas, he fled Venezuela in 2018 after being threatened for his political views. A friend working for the country's defense ministry claimed officials there were planning to arrest Cazalis on political charges. After escaping to Miami last November, he turned himself in to immigration officials in an attempt to seek asylum.
Immigration agents decided his fear was well founded and moved him to BTC to wait while his case was being decided. Cazalis spent more than six excruciating months locked in the detention center before his eventual deportation this past May. Despite the fact he had no criminal record, an immigration judge set his bond at $15,000 — more than double the median bond nationwide in 2018, according to Syracuse University's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC).
"I was treated like a dangerous criminal, without rights and subject to constant psychological attacks by prison guards who would insult us, assuming we didn't understand because we were Latino," says Cazalis, who is now 27. "I stopped eating. I started to lose my memory from malnutrition."
Rubio and other Republicans, including Sen. Rick Scott, have struggled to dress up the Trump administration's indifference when it comes to helping desperate Venezuelans until their country is safe for return. On the outside, Trump's congressional allies try to sell the president as genuinely concerned for the plight of Venezuelans around the world. But Trump's own officials tell a different story. The president's special envoy to Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, has publicly admitted Trump is unlikely to grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to any immigrants as long as federal courts continue to allow challenges to his administration's decision to revoke old designations for various other countries. Recently, Trump's acting head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Ken Cuccinelli, echoed the sentiment.
In other words, until the White House gets its way on the issue of TPS, the Trump administration will continue to jeopardize the safety of an estimated 150,000 displaced Venezuelans with uncertain legal status by using them as a bargaining chip. Earlier this month, word leaked that Trump and his advisers were considering granting TPS to Venezuelans solely as a political ploy to help him win the Latino vote in Florida in 2020.
Rubio, who sponsored a Senate bill this summer to give Venezuelans TPS, has insisted legal protections for displaced Venezuelans could still be in the works despite Trump's cynicism on the issue.
"The administration hasn't said they won't do TPS. They simply said that they haven't decided to do so at this moment," Rubio said in the Spanish version of his July video. "I don't think this is cause for panic. We're working on this, and I think we're going to get a positive result."
As evidenced by Rubio's July video, it's clear the senator, who fashions himself a champion for Venezuelans, was misinformed about their ongoing deportations and long-term detention. Rubio did not respond to multiple emails and calls seeking comment for this article. Neither did ICE or representatives with Copa Airlines, which is based in Panama.
ICE deported nearly 300 Venezuelans from October 2017 through August 2018, the last month for which removal data is available, according to statistics compiled by TRAC. The vast majority of Venezuelans deported either had no convictions or only a minor transgression on their records.
That was true of Cazalis, who despite his spotless record was shipped back to Venezuela. His deportation has made him skeptical of U.S. leaders making claims of solidarity.
"All the senators and politicians who claim they support immigrants, particularly Venezuelan immigrants — to me, they're all liars and frauds. They make promises to get votes but don't do anything," Cazalis says. "Those seven months I spent in BTC, I know they talked about TPS for Venezuelans. Nothing happened, and not one of them visited Venezuelans in detention centers."
Back in Ciudad Bolívar, Rojas must now decide whether he'll stay where he is, apart from his family, or make the journey to the southern border of the United States, where he could turn himself in to authorities and hope to prove his claim for asylum. He'd be trading one hell for another, and even then, there's no guarantee he would be awarded asylum.
Rojas says he speaks to his girlfriend and son through video chat every day. It's not the same as being there, he admits, but it helps. With him gone, his girlfriend has begun to work odd jobs and leaves the baby with family during her shifts. Venezuela's rampant inflation makes it so Rojas can barely get by on the salary he makes working with his dad. He has nothing left over to send to Miami.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Miami New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Miami's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
"Every day, the baby gets bigger. He hasn't said his first words yet or taken his first steps, but it will happen. I want to be there for it," Rojas says.
If there is a reunion in the near future, it will have to be in the United States. Rojas is adamant that Venezuela is no place to raise a child right now, and for the time being, meeting elsewhere is out of the question. His girlfriend recently filed an application for asylum to avoid being separated from their 4-month-old. Until it's resolved, she won't be able to leave the country.
Desperate and heartbroken in Ciudad Bolívar, Rojas keeps photos of his family close and his phone even closer. For his profile on WhatsApp, he has chosen a picture of his son at 2 months old — hands clapping under a wide toothless smile, with little tufts of black hair sprouting from his head. But Rojas wonders whether his only child will ever know him.
"I still haven't met my son. I worry that he'll grow up without knowing me," he says. "I would do anything to get back to my family."